Sensing Havana

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Travel anywhere can be magical for many reasons, but as a writer what inspires me most is the shift in perspective – seeing new things, which is as trite as it is true of course – but also seeing old things in a new way. Have you ever noticed how returning home after a big trip even the mundane snaps into focus, like putting on a new pair of glasses? How obviously a tree trunk in the yard resembles a thumb and forefinger though you’d never once noted it or the regularity with which that dun colored bird comes to visit each morning?

I’ve lived in Havana the past nine years and what snapped to my attention and popped into focus when I first got here I rarely notice now (see note 1). Mustachioed women and muffin tops for instance or the fastidiousness with which people sweep the sidewalk and grass strips in front of their homes. I lament no longer seeing my adopted city with a “child’s eyes” – that precious curiosity and wonder we tend to lose as adults – but tell myself it’s justified. Change is happening so fast here (for here), how could I focus on the constants?

 It used to be for instance, that the only Mercedes’ you’d see were taxis lined up at the Hotel Nacional or zooming down 5ta Avenida transporting heads of state. Back in the day, a couple of superstars had them too: Once I saw the unmistakable salsero Pedrito Calvo behind the wheel of his Mercedes, but it was missing a hubcap and had dents around the wheel well. Today, there are all kinds of shiny new cars cruising Havana’s cratered streets – BMWs and Audi’s, but also at least one Bentley, Hummer, and mini Cooper. All sport yellow license plates (indicating private ownership), not black (embassy) or blue (state).

 Today, Havana is in flux. Accumulation of wealth and inequalities are becoming inevitably more pronounced and the political future is…uncertain. There’s a lot of anxiety and low level stress judging by what I’m hearing in the streets and hallways (and the difficulty I’m having scheduling a slot with my new therapist – but that’s another post).

 Some days, like today, I prefer to retreat from all the politics and angst, uncertainty and yes, sadness to some degree, and see Havana like I once did all those years ago – with fresh eyes.

Elaborate topiary & saucy garden gnomes: Tacky and suburban to my sensibilities, most of my Cuban friends appreciate and admire the artistry of a well-trimmed bush and the kitschy-cute gnomes that dot front lawns from Vedado to Boyeros. There are even buxom female gnomes (gnomettes? gnomas?) squeezing their bosoms like ripe fruit in yards across the city. Brightly-painted cement mushrooms often complete the scene.

Public zit popping: This habit is part sport, hobby, and time killer for Cuban couples. On park benches and at bus stops or waiting on the bread line, lovers are popping each other’s zits and squeezing out blackheads with glee. Does someone need to point out to them that acne and food never mix? Apparently, someone does.

Dogs doing their thing:  Innumerable are the times we’ve had to stop the car for a couple of canines fucking in the middle of the street as if they were ensconced in their own private posada. Nonplussed, the bitch regards us with a feral smile as she’s humped away by some mangy stray. They refuse to be rushed: No coitus interruptus for these puppies. The same goes for middle-of-the-street shitting. She squats, watching and taunting us to inch forward with a toothy snarl. It can be a laborious stand off – almost all Cuban dogs are constipated.

Pure breds: While we’re talking dogs, I noticed from the start that certain perros de raza are all the rage here. It used to be cocker spaniels (still the go-to dog for sniffing out lethal and illicit substances at the airport), followed by Dalmatians. This isn’t unique to Havana: certain pets the world over become fads and status symbols (see: Nemo and chihuahuas). But what’s hard to square here is the craze for chow chows, who walk the streets with heat-ravaged fur and black tongues hanging as low as an old man’s balls and Siberian Huskies. Pobrecitos. Dogs die of heat exhaustion too.

Gold teeth: Like pure-bred dogs, the gold teeth fad swept across Havana some years ago like the flu making the rounds now. From 10-year old kids to aging cabaret dancers, everyone was chasing the dental bling. There were even TV shows and news coverage about it. Oral ore seems to be on the decline, but whether it’s just a fad that’s fizzled or a sign of the economic times, I cannot say.

Come hither weatherwomen: When Leticia, the master degree-holding weatherwoman popped on the nightly news screen in gold lamé, I laughed and wondered if the wardrobe captain had taken a vacation or fast boat to Miami. A few days later, she informed us about the advancing frente frío wearing a black lace-up corset and sheer drape. Does she sidle into the next studio after the 5-day forecast to film the novela, I wondered? (see note 2). But nothing topped learning temperatures would drop over the next couple of days from a woman on national television sporting a camel toe.

Cuba: you never cease to restore my sense of awe. And that’s a good thing.


1. This is the reasoning some guidebook companies use for not employing locally-based authors – they’re too inured to place. It has occasionally worked against me, but I can see their point. The ideal scenario, I think, is for individual guides to be written by a combination of local and non-local authors. This is our arrangement on Lonely Planet Hawai’i and it works well.

2. Even among scientists, Fredrick’s of Hollywood stands to make a fortune here once/if the embargo is lifted.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban Revolution, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba, Writerly stuff

17 responses to “Sensing Havana

  1. Thanks for yet another fantastic post. Funnily enough, for me it took at least 5 visits to Cuba to notice the mustachiod women.

    .. but I’ve always too questioned the PDA of the Cuban dogs. My friends say that the dogs are just doing as would do their people. (and so very sad but true about the constipated dogs. Is hard to be canine and living on a bread-white-rice-diet!)

    • I do believe purveyors of waxing services and Neet will make a tidy sum here….

      oh dogs will be dogs, but most of the cubans I know are actually only copulating in public spaces for lack of a private one. Of course, this is a turn on for some…

      And not all dogs here live on bread and rice alone. I know quite a few who eat bistec de cerdo (pork steaks – something most cubans can’t eat with regularity!), liver, even beef.

      thanks for stopping by.

  2. lucibug

    Thanks for bringing to life Havana for me again. I’m glad I had a chance to visit the city twice before it completely transforms for the worse (hopefully this will not be the case). When I go back there next…I will be sure to keep an eye out for these things you mention of. It is these small observations that can really keep things interesting!

    • Hey, glad to oblige!! Transformation and change – it’s never easy, comes in fits and starts and detours rather than following a linear narrative (which would be oh, so much easier!). We’ll have to see how things develop – yes, please: not for the worse – and you can bet I’ll be writing about it.

      Another thing to look for which I forgot to add in the post and just might in the next few days because it is too Cuban to leave out: two-legged chairs.

  3. Dan

    Hey Conner- great as usual- I am wondering what news coverage of the unrest (revolutions) in Africa and the mid East is like? In general I have been impressed with Cuban world news…

    • Yes, all Africa and Middle East (and Wisconsin which is front page news and receives prime time coverage) news coming through loud and clear here. We’re lucky to have TelesSur. I know more about the world since living here and Im much more conscious of how skewed US media is (not that I needed any more evidence….)

  4. Wow, all of these things I didn’t notice on my trip to Cuba. I can’t wait to return and keep me eye open for them (minus the zit popping yuck!!!).

  5. Ole

    Hey, Conner,

    The HumVee is Fidels son , illegitimate. Are you surprised!?!

    You’ll get it yet. 9 years may not be enough for you.

    They are Commies! You are less than nothing to them, and your husband-a citizen of cuba- less yet.

    good luck.

    • Surprised? That he’s got a hummer or that there are illegitimate Cubans out there? Nope, not surprised.

      I need all the luck I can get. Your snarky judgements? Not so much. And you used to say such constructive things here Ole. Pity.

  6. Charo

    Nice, conner, as usual. Well spotted. I still can get over the mini-skirts in the aduana… is my first reminder that I am in Cuba.

    BTW… the gold teeth thing… it would be nice to read an article about it: what it means, how people with gold teeth are seen by others, the link with “ambiente” and marginals… you know, all that jazz…

  7. MaryAnn

    I have nothing but envy for someone that gets to call the Caribbean home. Cuba has now become a great mystery to most Anglo’s on our big island since we have not been allowed to freely roam your shores as tourist it’s now a place we must see. I am not a grammarian as you may have noticed but enjoy your site and read and re-read your post. Big laughs, lots of fun and in so many ways people are the same the world over, dog turds and all.

    • Hola MaryAnn. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: in so many ways, people are the same the world over. This is one of the underlying themes of Here is Havana – how we are more alike than different. Of course, the differences are endlessly fascinating to me, but the mystery is partly myth. I hope I continue to help illuminate both sides of the coin. Thanks for reading!

  8. Oh, can I identify! here in Chile human and canine PDA is the order of the day and I had to laugh because I was just thinking about writing something about PZP (Public Zit Popping)!!
    Love the come-hither meteorologist description (fortunately, not here, although I often wonder how much cleavage is really necessary to report the weather)
    And yes, oh yes, after 20 years here, I agree that the closer we get to the inside, the harder it is to see from the outside! But I insist, that this “inside out” position we have as long-term expats gives us some incredibly valuable insight into both (home and new home) cultures.

    • Hey Margaret! Thanks for stopping by and writing in. Very interesting: public zit popping is popular in Chile too. What the fuck up with that? (excuse my French) Have other expats seen this where they live? Might make an interesting YouTube vid. Ewwwww.

      And I think you’re right: this inside out position DOES give us incredible insight. Even only everyone realized that!

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